We may need a vote to decide how we vote
Having lost the past election in part because they were convinced they could not win it — Canadians, Conservatives told themselves, could never be persuaded to vote Conservative on a straightforward contest of ideas, but could only be tricked or frightened into it — Conservatives are now telling themselves they can never win another.
Not, that is, if the Liberals follow through with promised changes to the electoral system: a recipe, as more than one Conservative has claimed, for perpetual Liberal government. In particular, were reform to come in the shape of a ranked ballot ( instead of marking an X, you’d rank the candidates, 1,2, 3 …) the Liberals could, as the columnist Tasha Kheiriddin has written in the National Post, “more easily elect backto-back majority governments — possibly forever.”
As a centrist party, runs the argument, the Liberals would be best placed to pick up second choices from voters to the right and especially the left. By contrast, the Conservatives, as the sole rightof- centre party, would be permanently consigned to the margins of Canadian politics, isolated, friendless and alone.
Hence the gathering Conservative campaign demanding a referendum on any proposed reform. It’s couched in terms of democratic principle: Liberals have no mandate, Conservatives argue, to implement such a fundamental change in the country’s electoral architecture.
But what is advanced in the name of the public interest often has a way of also being in the private interest of whoever is proposing it. Liberals may be fairly accused of preferring the ranked ballot model because it is most likely to deliver them into power. But Conservatives could equally be accused of self-interest in their defence of the status quo.
As, for that matter, could the NDP: its preferred alternative, proportional representation, just happens to be the system most congenial to a small, ideologically based party. Indeed, if one thing can be predicted with some certainty about the coming debate, it is that all of the combatants will be guided strictly by self- i nterest, whatever pious sentiments may come out of their mouths.
Or at any rate, perceived self- interest. It’s not clear to me that the Conservatives would be doomed under a ranked or proportional system, and it’s even less clear why they should want to say so. Essentially they are acknowledging “the only way we can win is under a system that fundamentally distorts voter choices, wherein a party with 40 per cent of the vote or less may claim to represent the majority.”
But just because the Conservatives are unable to attract many second choices now does not mean they can never do so in future. Under a different leader, with a different message, who’s to say? The thing about “fundamental change” is it’s fundamentally unpredictable — any prediction that simply transposes existing voting patterns onto a new system is almost certainly wrong. The point cannot be made often enough: change the voting system, and everything changes. Party strategies would evolve, as would the calculus facing voters.
Indeed, we might well see whole new parties arise, to the left and to the right, the threat of vote- splitting no longer serving as a deterrent to wandering voters. Not only would Conservatives have to adapt to this changed strategic landscape, so would every party.
But back to that question of whether the Liberals have a mandate for reform. It’s true the party campaigned on an explicit pledge that this would be the last election under the existing, “first- past- the- post” system. Still, Conservatives are right to note the contradiction in denouncing the present system as unrepresentative — 40-per-cent majorities, indeed — while claiming a mandate from that same system.
Liberals could counter that the NDP and Greens also campaigned on electoral reform of some kind: the mandate for change is therefore arguably composed not only of the 40 per cent who voted Liberal, but of the 60 per cent- plus who voted for one of the three parties. Certainly there’s no hard and fast rule on how fundamental a change has to be to warrant a referendum.
What will ultimately decide it, rather, is perceptions of fairness. The Liberals can hardly ram through a system perceived as favouring them; but neither can they cook up a deal with the NDP, if that were seen as unfair to the Conservatives. In the absence of allparty consensus, the issue will have to be put to some impartial arbiter, outside the political game. The public would seem a likely candidate.
But just saying “hold a referendum” hardly settles matters. For the question that immediately comes to mind is: a referendum on what? There are a number of possibilities. It could be a straight choice between the status quo and some proposed reform — but that assumes consensus on what that alternative should be.
A two- part question might address that: 1. Should we change the system, 2. If so, which of these changes would you prefer? But it seems odd to ask people whether they want to change the system without knowing precisely what sort of change was in order.
Perhaps the best approach, as the political scientist Don Lenihan has lately suggested, is simply to put all of the main options — first past the post, ranked ballot, maybe one or two types of proportional representation — on the same ballot. Of course, this raises the spectre of the winning option gaining only a minority of public support. So Lenihan floats an intriguing idea: perhaps the choice of systems should itself be put to a ranked ballot.
This may invite visions of endless regressions, referendums on referendums on referendums. But there’s no escaping it. As with the rules of elections, the rules governing any referendum — and we haven’t even discussed what majority would be required — will not only shape how the vote is conducted, but what sorts of options are put on the ballot. Let the debate on the debate on the debate begin!
‘ The thing about “fundamental change” is it’s fundamentally unpredictable.’ — Columnist Andrew Coyne